JUBA, South Sudan — On the last full day of his trip to Africa, Pope Francis met with the displaced South Sudanese who have borne the brunt of the conflict he came to help resolve by issuing blunt and insistent calls for leaders to get serious about peace.
“I am with here you, and I suffer for you and with you,” Francis said at Freedom Hall in Juba, the capital, to hundreds of people who, like millions of South Sudanese, lived what he called the “common and collective experience” of living in sprawling camps for displaced people.
Calling South Sudan the “greatest enduring refugee crisis on the continent,” afflicted with widespread hunger, especially for women and children, he lamented the war, ethnic strife, violence against women and floods aggravated by climate change that had put them in danger and uprooted them from their traditions and cultures.
But while Francis, who visited the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier in the week, has used all of his leverage, moral capital and international renown to push for peace in South Sudan — the world’s newest, largely Christian and still war-torn state — it is not clear what sort of country the displaced people Francis commiserated with can hope to go back to.
South Sudan’s wealth of natural resources remains a persistent magnet for plundering, conflict and corruption. The patience of international donors is waning. Ethnic strife, violence and floods are rising. And global attention, though intensified with Francis’ visit, is fickle and fleeting in a world with no shortage of significant conflicts and threats.
“We hope it will matter,” Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, a potential successor to Francis who oversees the Roman Catholic Church in Asia, Africa and other mission territories, said of the pope’s presence on Friday at the Presidential Palace, where Francis pushed South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, to make a concrete commitment to peace.
“We hope that this visit will highlight the beauty of these people and also their suffering,” Cardinal Tagle said. “And we hope it’s not just the churches, but the international community that will get together. Unfortunately, we need events like this to enter within the radar.”
And when the pope returns to Rome on Sunday, the country’s woes will remain, both in the violence that bloodies the land and in the treasure buried in the soil.
South Sudan has Africa’s third largest oil reserves, which were supposed to assure the country’s prosperity after it won its independence from Sudan in 2011. Much of the oil business is run by foreign multinationals that have been criticized for corrupt or unethical practices, like funding militias accused of atrocities. But the country’s leadership, considered among the most corrupt in the world, has much to answer for, as well.
Numerous investigations by foreign organizations have documented how billions in oil revenues have been siphoned off by South Sudanese leaders with help from foreign companies, oil traders and banks. Instead of building up the country, oil has become a factor in its undoing, fueling the infighting that exploded into a five-year civil war.
“In the whole of Africa, where oil is produced, it has been a curse,” said Johnny Ohisa Damian, the governor of the Bank of South Sudan. He expressed hope that the pope’s visit, and his push for peace, would show stability and encourage more international financial investment. He also hoped it could persuade the United States and other Western donors to shift some of their robust relief aid to development.
But Mr. Damian said that the country could not rely on oil alone. The government estimated that its reserves would be exhausted in the next 11 years. It needed to diversify, he said, making use of its millions of acres of arable land prime for large-scale farming and raising livestock.
Especially given the war in Ukraine, Mr. Damian envisioned South Sudan, parts of which were officially declared afflicted with famine in 2017, as a bread basket for Africa. But he said that for the country to move ahead, and for displaced people to be able to return to their homes, “the politicians have to stick to peace.”
Francis echoed that point on Saturday afternoon, envisioning “agriculture and livestock” jobs for the displaced people. Vanishing oil revenues are also a sore point for Western donors who pump billions of dollars into South Sudan every year to feed its starving people and provide a modicum of health services.
Nearly eight million South Sudanese, or two-thirds of the population, will suffer an acute lack of food by April, the United Nations recently projected, including 1.4 million children who will become malnourished. The United States, which played a key role in South Sudan’s independence, is the largest single donor to South Sudan, spending about $1 billion a year.
Frustrations with the failures of its post-independence leadership have made the country a “toxic” subject in Washington, said Alan Boswell, a Sudan expert at the International Crisis Group. But, he added, the Americans were also partly responsible.
“They argued the country was viable because of its oil,” Mr. Boswell said. “But that’s ultimately the prize South Sudan’s leaders fought over.”
That fighting, local Catholic Church officials said, prevented the country from harnessing its resources.
“You cannot manage your resources when there is war,” said Stephen Ameyu Martin Mulla, the archbishop of Juba, who also said there was plentiful gold to mine. He said the country’s leaders needed to be reminded by Francis that “in spite of all the greed or all this money that flows from petrol,” it was there to “help people.”
Archbishop Ameyu added that outside interests and local elites “who do not mind about the poor” exploited the oil, but that the church, with its focus on the poor, saw peace and reconciliation as the only avenue to allow people “to share the big, big national resources that we have here.”
The transformative potential of those resources was on the minds of the leaders watching Francis and other religious leaders boldly demand more from Mr. Kiir in the Presidential Garden on Friday.
“It is an opportunity,” said Atoroba Wilson Rikita Gbudue, the king of the Azande Kingdom in southwest South Sudan, who said that the country was blessed with oil, gold, diamonds and fertile land. He said peace was desperately needed to save lives and allow displaced people to go home, but also “to be able to identify other resources that we need in this country.”
But the country’s primary need, the Vatican has argued, is peace forced by international pressure and attention. On Thursday, at least 27 people, including five children, died in clashes in Central Equatoria State. Horrific sexual assaults are on the rise, as are kidnappings of children by armed cattle herders in the Jonglei State, in the country’s east.
Francis on Saturday morning told a meeting of his clergy that they should not stand on the sidelines. “We, too, are called to intercede for our people, to raise our voices against the injustice and the abuses of power that oppress and use violence to suit their own ends amid the cloud of conflicts,” he said at the Cathedral of St. Therese, adding, “we cannot remain neutral before the pain caused by acts of injustice and violence.”
The pope has himself incessantly tried to raise awareness of those iniquities, not just by working to broker an end to a conflict that has killed more than 400,000 people, but also by dramatically drawing international attention in 2019 when he knelt at the Vatican to kiss the shoes of Mr. Kiir, a former rebel who has led South Sudan since 2011, and his archrival, Riek Machar.
“That was huge — I don’t know how to explain it. It showed we were in the pope’s heart,” said Alokiir Malual, who represents civil society groups in South Sudan. When the pope canceled his trip last summer because of mobility issues, she said the country feared he would never come. “We were all worried: the age, the distance, the health,” she said. But his arrival made “the importance of us” in his pontificate clear. And his arrival in Juba intensified that spotlight.
That attention is not necessarily flattering for Mr. Kiir.
Activists have called on the pope to confront the increasingly repressive rule of Mr. Kiir, whose security forces are routinely accused of detaining, torturing and killing human rights defenders. Even those who flee abroad are in danger from the South Sudanese government, according to a report by the Ireland-based rights group Front Line Defenders.
Elections are scheduled for the end of 2024, although few believe the country is ready. A unity government formed by Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar in 2020 has been plagued by distrust.
South Sudan’s religious and civil leaders hoped that the visit of Francis, along with Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury and the symbolic head of the global Anglican Communion, and Iain Greenshields, the leader of the Church of Scotland, might change that.
Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, the former primate of the South Sudanese Episcopalian church, said he hoped that the political leaders would “learn to come together” from the united religious leaders, and understand that “this is a time to forgive each other.”